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daily review, wed., apr. 15

Toronto writer Robert J. Sawyer is well placed as one of the world's leading science fiction writers. He has won more than 40 awards, including the Hugo, the Nebula and the Joseph W. Campbell Memorial Award, and his new books are highly anticipated by an ever-larger fan base.

Now Sawyer has embarked on an ambitious new project with Wake , the first book in his new WWW trilogy. Wake is a step into the not-so-distant future, an exploration of the nature of consciousness and awareness in our technological age.

  • Wake, by Robert J. Sawyer, Viking Canada, 448 pages, $30

Fifteen-year-old Caitlin Decter is a stranger in a strange land. Not only has she recently moved from Austin, Texas, to Waterloo, Ont., she experiences the physical world differently than her classmates. Born with a rare syndrome in which her pupil dilation is reversed, Caitlin attended a school for the blind until her move to Canada.

A typical teenager when it comes to homework, friends and boys, Caitlin has learned to live in the seeing world, albeit uncertainly. Once online, however, she is able to speed through cyberspace, blogging and researching with confidence and skill.

When an e-mail arrives from Japanese doctor Masayuki Kuroda, detailing an experimental procedure that seems ideally suited to her rare form of genetic blindness, Caitlin's world is upended. After years of failed attempts to cure her blindness, she is uncertain of the new computer system designed to work with an implant placed behind her eye, but remains guardedly optimistic.

After the surgery, Caitlin is able to see for the first time in her life, but what she sees is not the corporeal world, but rather, the billions of intersecting lines and intersections that make up the World Wide Web.

Interwoven throughout Caitlin's tale are other narratives: of a hybrid bonobo/chimpanzee and the humans who have taught him sign language and study him; a mass outbreak of a new strain of the bird flu appears in China and extreme steps taken by the leaders of that country, resulting in radical movements of some of its citizens; a new life form appears, slowly discovering the facets of its own existence.

These narratives come and go with little discernible pattern; a storyline introduced near the beginning may be revisited continuously for 100 pages and then inexplicably dropped, not to be seen for another 100 pages, if at all. As this is the first in a trilogy, it is to be assumed that Sawyer will gather all these errant threads and weave them into a cohesive plot.

Sawyer clearly has done an immense amount of research for this book, expositing on branches of science from neuroscience to primatology, and citing sources from Helen Keller to Julian Jaynes. It takes a gentle hand to impart the necessary science to non-tech readers without flooding them with too much information, while at the same time keeping the concepts high enough to engage the interest of readers with a more scientific background.

Unfortunately, Sawyer struggles with this balance. Wake is not accessible enough for a casual reader looking for an compelling read, while readers of a more scientific bent might be alienated by the book's didacticism. Much of the information is vital to the story, but Sawyer delves too deeply, making it read more like a science journal than a novel, simultaneously fascinating and frustrating.

There is also a clumsiness to the characterizations. While Caitlin is moderately well-developed, it becomes clear that she, as an individual, is going to become overshadowed by the new entity that is developing. With the exception of the new being, none of the characters feel fully formed yet, though hopefully this will change with the next two books of the trilogy.

The development of the new entity is also awkward. There is a challenge inherent in portraying a new life form as it comes to awareness: It has no language with which to describe its burgeoning knowledge of self and others. In a book that is largely focused on language and communication, it is difficult to accept the being's path toward self-awareness as it is expressed.

All this being said, Sawyer has once again boldly stepped into new territory and has created a work that is engaging and thought-provoking. It is to be hoped that the next two books will fulfill the promise of Wake .

Cori Dusmann is an educator and writer living in Victoria.

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